Philosophy and Popular Culture

Many people are surprised to learn that philosophy and popular culture are interested in each other. A familiar perspective is that philosophy is a very remote, abstract and “high brow” activity whereas popular culture is perceived as being “low brow”, lacking in serious content, commercially driven and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. There is an element of truth in both these impressions, but as with so many things, an element of truth can exist side by side with elements of falsity. One leading publisher has for some years now been producing an ever growing and popular series of books with titles ranging from Iron Man and Philosophy, The Hunger Games and Philosophy right through to even Black Sabbath and Philosophy and The Big Lebowski and Philosophy!

This series alone should dispel the notion that philosophy and popular culture have little or nothing to interest each other. On the contrary, philosophers have been interested in popular culture since the time of the ancient Greeks. The great – perhaps greatest – philosopher Plato (427 – 347 BC), devoted a great deal of attention to the popular culture of his day, writing on epic poetry (Homer), tragic drama and even comedy. Far from looking down on such things, he saw the enormous power of the poets and dramatists, the ancient equivalent of modern novelists and screenwriters, and their ability to advance ideas that touch on the most profound aspects of the human condition. What concerned Plato the most was the lack of rational accountability involved in the spoken and performing arts. These arts are tremendously powerful, they can implant ideas and influence people very effectively, yet they do not follow any rational procedure for establishing their conclusions. Poets and writers are masters of the power of rhetoric, an art of persuasion that works on the emotions.

Philosophers have generally distrusted the emotions as a source of motivation in situations where some kind of rational procedure would be a better means of deciding a course of action, or evaluating one’s beliefs and commitments. For example, modern advertising aims at influencing our purchasing habits by manipulating our emotions. Certain goods and services may be associated, through imagery, with conceptions of happiness. Women are constantly bombarded with images of physical beauty which are completely unrealistic for 99% of real women out there. The message always seems to be: if you look like this, you will be happy, our goods or services will help you look like this, or at least, more like this. The inevitable failure to live up to these near-impossible ideals leads to a great deal of unhappiness. This takes the depressingly familiar forms where women may succumb to eating disorders, low self-esteem and a host of dysfunctional behaviors which can be traced back to these unrealistic paradigms of what it is to be a successful and attractive woman. Likewise, men are targeted by associating certain goods and services with supposedly normative conceptions of masculinity: real men drive this kind of car, or real men drink this kind of beer, and so on. Most of us are well aware of what’s going on here at a conscious level, and yet, advertising works. How is this possible? How is it possible for us to be quite savvy to advertising’s methods, yet study after study shows, nevertheless, that it works? This is a very important question and the answer would go way beyond the parameters of our current topic. The short answer, which will have to do for present purposes, is that advertising works because, at some level, it plays to beliefs we already hold and then connects them to the product in often very ingenious ways. The people in advertising are a generally very clever breed with a good understanding of basic human psychology. One of their cleverest insights is that most people think themselves wise to advertisers, above their tricks and wiles, and so immune to the power of advertising. Much of effective modern advertising begins from this premise and turns it against us!

I want to draw one connection between the power of advertising and the power of popular culture, and this is the common starting point – they both derive much of their power from a good understanding of human psychology and good grasp on what people already believe. Starting from this solid foundation, the persuader is then able to insinuate a new belief, often in a very subtle way, into the matrix of already held beliefs. This is not necessarily a bad thing. What if the new ideas are good ones; what if they are true? What if a screenwriter is insinuating true moral beliefs and using the kinds of methods that all persuasion via the emotions employ? Likewise, perhaps the singer-songwriter has a true and noble vision of the world and the ability to convey that vision through the incredible power of music? Isn’t that precisely what we mean when we describe so and so as a great songwriter? Probably, but herein lies the problem. How can we know whether the vision is true or false? How can we be sure that the emotional elation these songs induce in us has any connection with the “truth” we feel when we hear them? How can we be sure that the great insights we attribute to a screenwriter’s script played out on the big screen really are great insights into the human condition? Our elevated feeling may just be explained as a kind of recognition. That these great insights or truths may be no more than beliefs we already hold being re-presented to us, through a powerfully moving medium, be it in song, on the page or on the screen.

These are just some of the questions that philosophers have posed about popular culture and its products since Plato’s time. Plato’s conclusion about the arts, particularly any of the arts that employ the word, was that we ought to be suspicious. Anything that can powerfully move us at the emotional level is something that we should surely step back from and analyse as rationally and objectively as we can. It’s not that we should reject cultural productions, that would be churlish and barbaric, but that we have to apply our rational and critical faculties to evaluating these productions. This, inevitably, implies that there is good and bad art. It also suggests, at least, that good art is the kind of art that, in some way, represents fundamental truths about the human condition. Good art should speak to us at the deepest level and enrich our experience. Bad art distorts or even falsifies our experience and condition, even if it somehow manages to move us, because its power to move us is not necessarily connected to its truth content. Or maybe another kind of bad art is one that does disclose truths about us, but then connects them to bad conclusions. For instance, a pop song celebrating promiscuity, takes the truth that human beings have powerful sexual desires but links it with an exhortation to act on those desires in ways that are irresponsible, which tend to objectify other people, and which invariably lead to unhappiness.

If popular culture, advertising and other forms of non-rational persuasion techniques in some measure rest on appealing to beliefs we already hold, our critique of persuasion and popular culture will gain its power from the degree to which we can draw these more basic beliefs into our conscious attention and analyze them. The aim is not to criticize popular culture out of our lives altogether – that would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater – but rather to gain greater critical control over what we believe, how we act, and the kinds of lives we lead. As we become more and more aware of how non-rational persuasion works, we recover more and more of our personal autonomy and at the same time become less and less prey to those who want to sell us things we don’t really need or behave in ways that ultimately do not serve our best interests. Very simply, it’s one of the ways that we can take back control of our lives from the various monolithic forces that govern modern society.

The staff at Phronesis all fully recognise the power and importance of popular culture in our society at large and in our personal lives. In this section we will periodically review and discuss films, books, music and even games from a philosophical perspective. We hope this will be stimulating and informative but also a lot of fun.